Elongated spasms

This week, AL Kennedy composes begging letters and officiates at a showbiz wedding

Well, I’m still alive. I think. A combination of stress and research now means that I’ve developed a wibbly eyelid and two different head ticks. I think the eyelid annoys only me, but the head ticks are a bit much for the general public. The main one involves my head shaking itself in a perfectly understandable ohpleaseno kind of motion. I’ve tried to adjust this into a more positive yeswhynotifIhaveto noddy thing – but this often simply causes the two to combine and then involve me lashing about in elongated spasms that no doubt translate as fallingdownawell fallingdownawell.

Meanwhile the first Pencilfest at Warwick – organised by student writers for student writers – went off rather well and was, I’d have to say, better organised than several long-established festivals I could name. I think their choice not to have a giant parrot mascot was probably a mistake, but otherwise all was delightful, the sun shone with enthusiasm and nobody died or spontaneously combusted during my event (comedy about writing) which is always a plus. My other comedy gigs ranged between – “This is grand and I wish to do it for the rest of my life,” and the rather more downbeat “You were mostly here last month when I did much of the same material, weren’t you? Please bear with me and I shall not be so slapdash again – it’s just that my brain can only produce so much Funny in a 4 week period, given that all I’ve been doing is working. I have been unforgivable and will now make a noise like a hoop and roll away.” I am packing the notebook with new Funny, even as I type this. Can’t be tedious for the lovely ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been drawn to my attention – by my bank statement – that, although I’m ricocheting off the UK’s corners and expending energy I’m borrowing from future generations, I’m not actually earning any money at the moment. Or not quite enough to balance my perfectly reasonable outgoings. Another week of this and I’ll have to stop waiting for something to turn up and try to manufacture something – despite attending two festivals next week and disappearing into London again for research purposes. I feel that if I don’t sleep or go to the toilet, spare time could be created for additional lucrative endeavours.

I should, of course, be tapping away at a new (and entirely unprofitable) short story – and may tonight – but the rest of the daylight hours may well be occupied in writing begging letters to people who could assist me with the next novel’s more factual and elusive bits. I am fantastically bad at asking for help, don’t seem to be able to do it in person at all and tend to feel that emotionally blackmailing busy people to do work for you for nothing is fairly inexcusable. Beginning a letter to a total stranger with “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t deserve to live…” is perhaps not a good idea and so much rewriting ensues.

The high point of last weekend was, naturally, the marriage of Christine Cloughly (dance teacher, social butterfly and accountant) to Paul Sneddon (comic) which took place both on Saturday and Sunday. First, the conventional service – with the traditional interval for watching Dr Who – and then they joined many comics and other excellent people at The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh for a second, entirely unnecessary showbiz marriage at which I was proud to officiate in my capacity as ordained (by mail) minister. They’re two splendid people, have been happy together for ages and will, I hope, be even happier now.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.